Community reeling at five sudden deaths

By Amanda Snow

Ten-year-old among five young people to die suddenly during school holidays

Abigale-Rose Barnard dyed her hair black after being bullied at school.
Abigale-Rose Barnard dyed her hair black after being bullied at school.

A small community is pleading for answers after the sudden deaths of five young people - one a boy aged just 10, locals say.

The spate of tragedies culminated in the death of beautiful 15-year-old schoolgirl Abigale-Rose Barnard on the final weekend of the school holidays.

Abigale's grieving father Michael said her death was his worst nightmare come true. "There are so many unanswered questions," he said this week, after her tangi.

"All of it is hard. The fact she will never be around again. The finality of it. She had such a bright future, it's such a tragic waste."

The deaths from the Taupo Bay area in the Far North follow the Herald on Sunday's reports on a similar cluster in Kawerau two years ago. These, and the country's relentlessly high suicide rate, are now prompting calls for a nationwide suicide prevention publicity programme similar to that used to combat depression - and for government funding to be more effectively targeted.

Abigale's death has devastated her family, still reeling from the loss of her two young female cousins late last year. The stepmother of one, Gina Peterson, said the community lost another teenage girl in June last year, and a 10-year-old boy a few months later.

"It got to the point where you are numb," said Peterson, who tutors local youth programmes. "It was my son, her cousin, who found Abigale and he was only 13."

Community members are speaking out in the hope of avoiding copycat suicides or pacts. Peterson said it was time to openly discuss why Kiwi teenagers were dying. "Everything is hush-hush, keep it under the carpet," Peterson said. "With my son and my daughter, losing so many people so close to them, we talk about it all the time."

She said the deaths all occurred in the school holidays. Boredom may have been a factor. Drugs and alcohol were also a concern.

Gwen Hawken, who has lost niece Abigale and two young cousins, believed social media, bullying and access to alcohol needed to be addressed - and critically, adults needed to involve young people in conversations around suicide.

"More help is needed in the community," she said. "They are trying to find a way but they don't know the next step. There's a certain age that needs to be targeted through the schools, through sports clubs. It's not just in the north, it's across New Zealand."

Local list MP Shane Jones attended the tangi of one of the teenagers and fears one problem is that the funerals provide an opportunity for teenagers to romanticise deaths.

"These tangi are heart-wrenching," he said yesterday. "A tangihanga related to suicide is a bleak affair. There are only broken hearts and fractured communities.

"We must take the opportunity to broadcast our opposition to a subculture of alcohol, drugs and hopelessness. The tragedy of suicide belongs to no ethnic group exclusively, but it pains me that it's disproportionately Maori in my neck of the woods."

Thirty-four people in Northland took their own lives in the year to June, compared to 26 the year before. The number of deaths overshadowed the region's road toll of 20 lives in the same period.

When Chief Coroner Judge Neil MacLean released national figures showing 541 people had committed suicide in the year to June 2013 he voiced his frustration that "we cannot seem to make inroads into our unacceptably high suicide rate".

New Zealand First deputy leader Tracey Martin called for research and a publicity campaign. Associate health minister Todd McClay said he was not averse to the idea, but the issue of suicide was more "complicated and sensitive" than the TV campaigns used to combat depression. He insisted suicide prevention was a major priority, pointing to a new $8 million four-year Suicide Prevention Action Plan involving eight government agencies.

Grieving after the tangi, Michael Barnard said his daughter Abigale, who started at Hato Petera boarding school on Auckland's North Shore this year, had previously been bullied. "She had beautiful red hair, but after being teased several years ago started dying it black. It became an obsession ."

He believed young people needed to be encouraged to speak out if they had worrying thoughts . "They don't have to be ashamed to have thoughts like that. They need to go to somebody and tell them."


Where to get help

Youth services: (06) 355 5906

Youthline: 0800 376 633

Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (4pm to 6pm weekdays)

Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (noon to midnight)

The Word

Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (24-hour service)

Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155

CASPER Suicide Prevention

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

- Herald on Sunday

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf04 at 21 Dec 2014 02:28:56 Processing Time: 596ms